Jones Report - 2007 Florida

Nick's Trip to the Florida Keys (17-25 April 2007)
I went to the Florida Keys for a scuba diving trip, and dived in two separate locations:
Marathon, half-way down the keys, and Key Largo at the top of the Keys. The diving
varied from awful to quite good, and as with my previous USA-based trips, including
the various Caribbean sites I've been to, the Australian Great Barrier Reef still has no
real competition!
I flew from Baltimore (BWI) to Miami International Airport (MIA) with another
Baltimore-based Australian, Adam, and we picked up a hire car at MIA. We drove
from Miami, south to Key Largo, and from there down the Keys to the island of
Marathon where we had booked a hotel for three nights.
After three days of diving (7 dives) from Marathon, we drove back up to Key Largo
to our next hotel, for five nights, and we managed to get an additional ten dives. We
met up with two other Baltimore-based divers in Key Largo.
Then we drove back from Key Largo to MIA where Adam dropped me off, as he had
to go to a conference in Sarasota, Florida, some three hours north of Miami. I flew
home and was back at work the next day!
The Florida Keys
My preconception was that the Florida Keys were several small islands with long
bridges between them. It turned out to be a bit the other way - long islands with short
bridges between them. The one exception was the bridge going south from Marathon
to the next island, called Big Pine. The bridge is called the 'seven mile bridge' so you
can guess how long it is. And we measured it with the car's odometer as we had to
drive from Marathon to Big Pine to go diving, since the dive operator was based on
Big Pine.
The top (north) end of the keys starts with Key Largo, a large, touristy island, easily
accessible from the Miami area. The island chain continues in a south-west direction
to Key West, another popular tourist destination, but we didn't go that far down.
Of note along the road were the "Crocodile Crossing" road signs. Unfortunately, we
didn't actually see any crocodiles, but they are usually out and about - sunning
themselves by the roadside! There was also a lot of road-work on the main road to
widen the road, raise the road level and replace bridges with much higher, more
durable ones.
Florida (and especially the Keys) is in a high-risk area for hurricanes (cyclones), and
the very nature of the island chain means that all the ground is low-lying, and subject
to large waves. In the event of a hurricane warning, there is only one, relatively
narrow, road out - the north-bound Highway 1. As we drove the length of Highway 1,
down the Keys, we saw several large concrete towers with surveillance cameras and
microwave dishes, and we speculated that they were part of an overall emergency
communications system, for use in hurricanes and evacuations.
Many of the bridges are low-lying, and thus the islands all have a 'bay' side and an
'ocean' side, and to get from one to the other you have to go under a bridge. If the
bridge is high enough, it's no problem, but there are still some drawbridges which stop
traffic when a boat needs to pass under. In fact, Florida generally is very flat and the
suburb design in the Miami area seems to be marinas and islands, so there were
several lift-bridges to allow boats to pass.
Marathon Diving
The diving at Marathon was with Paradise Divers from a small outboard boat. Apart
from Adam and myself, the number of other divers varied - mostly only a few, but 14
on one double dive.
The diving was mostly at a site called Looe Reef which was flat, scrubby reef on a
sandy bottom. All the dives were shallow and mostly in less than 10 metres of water,
generally with poor visibility. The one exception was a wreck dive on the 'Adolphus
Busch' where we had 33m to the bottom, and excellent visibility. Looe Reef seems to
be the main dive site at Big Pine, and there were dozens of mooring buoys, all lined
up and very close together. A real problem for divers is surfacing at the wrong boat!
I was wearing a 2mm wetsuit, but as I became a bit cold, especially towards the end
of the hour-long dives, I added a neoprene hood to my attire. One problem I had was
that my wetsuit zipper kept undoing - leaving me with a cold back. I think the wetsuit
must have shrunk. As usual, I was wearing boots and gloves. Yes, they actually let
you wear gloves on the dives, although most of the areas were 'marine parks'. For
some reason though, being a marine park doesn't stop the fishermen.
Key Largo Diving
The diving in Key Largo was much better than that from Big Pine. It was also quite a
bit easier from the land-end as the hotel was right on the marina, and the dive boat
was moored nearby. As I expected to be doing some wreck diving, and the dives
would all be 'double dives', I 'twinned-up' so I could use one pair of cylinders for two
We generally did four dives each day - a double dive in the morning, and then another
double dive in the afternoon, after a one-hour lunch break. The surface interval
between dives was negligible, because the second dives were very shallow.
We dived on the "Duane", a wreck at 33m and we did two dives on the "Speigel
Grove" a 500ft long wreck on a sandy bottom at about 40m. One dive had really
strong current and very poor visibility, but two days later we had no current and
fantastic visibility, and a great dive!
Just before one dive, I turned on the air on one of my cylinders, and the high-pressure
gauge flew off, ejecting its swivel joint in the process. Luckily there was a spare line
and gauge on board, so I swapped them over and joined my buddies in the water.
Later, I bought a replacement swivel joint and installed it, tightening the pressure
gauge onto the line. One thing which really surprised me was that the pressure gauge
must have been right on its final thread on the high-pressure line, and yet the swivel
joint had still sealed perfectly on all my previous dives. Amazing!
The density of dive boat moorings at Key Largo was even higher than at Marathon,
but because it wasn't peak season (which is summer), there weren't too many boats
using the moorings. As an aid to finding the right boat, our dive boat had its name,
"Scuba Do'", written on its bottom. This proved to be useful on a couple of dives!
What did we see?
Well, the reefs were pretty uninteresting. There were good sponges but not much
coral. The fish life was pretty good. We saw several sharks, usually large nurse
sharks, and several really large barracuda. In fact, I saw a pair of barracuda which
were so big, I thought they were sharks, until I got closer! There were large schools
of medium size fish, notably yellow-tail schnapper. We saw plenty of moray eels,
large and small, lots of medium-size crayfish (which they call lobster over here), and
several really big cod/grouper. The most amazing thing with all this fish-life was how
tame they were. Because there are so many divers, the fish see divers all the time, and
are unafraid of them.
We didn't see any turtles underwater, although we did see them from the boat. We
didn't see any squid, cuttlefish or octopus. We also didn't see any Manatee.
Thankfully we didn't see any crocodiles, although they are fresh-water beasts!
My camera was playing up with "memory stick error" messages, and refusing to take
pictures. I managed to fix it by using a 'calibrated tap' to the water-proof housing.
This happened twice.
The Marathon 'hotel' was pretty run down, and the office was closed when we arrived,
although they did turn up when we called their after-hours number. We also
discovered that the rooms were not serviced, and if you wanted clean towels then you
had to return the old ones to the office first (if it was open).
In contrast the Key Largo hotel was really good, although they gave us a room with
only one bed (so I ended up on a fold-up bed) and then they wouldn't give me any
replacement 'creamers' for the coffee machine. They did have free pool towels which
I took with me on board the dive boat. There was a continental breakfast included as
Both places had air-conditioning and a TV with the usual 70 cable channels, but
hardly anything worth watching. Both places had a fridge, and some coffee-making
facilities, although the Marathon place didn't actually supply any coffee. Because
Adam and I were sharing a room, it kept the overall cost down, and we also split the
cost of the hire-car.
The Florida Keys was a reasonable place to dive, but the diving at Key Largo was
much better than at Marathon. It would have been interesting to see what it was like
at Key West, but we didn't get down that far. I caught a nasty dose of sun burn on the
first day, and I'm not really sure how it happened - I was only outside briefly, but it
was at noon!
Nick Jones